Reconsidering The Melodic Identity Hypothesis

1 August, 2021
In which I reconsider my earlier hypothesis that melodies have strong identities, because, in the evolutionary past, meanings could be attached to those identities.

Recap: Strong Melodies as Providers of Identity

In some of my previous articles, in particular this and this, I considered the observation that strong melodies are perceived as having a strong identity, and I proposed that, in the past, these identities existed so that meanings could be attached to them.

Within this hypothesis I included the proposal that word-based language ultimately replaced this form of language based on melodic identity, because word-based language would become much more powerful and efficient.

Recap: Evolution from Proto-Music to Proto-Music+Words to Words Only

In this article I presented my latest theory about the evolution of music and language, in particular with the following proposed history:

Including Melodic Identity as an Extra Stage in the Evolutionary History

In my latest article I did not say anything about melody identity, and it was not included in my proposed evolutionary history of language and music.

However, an important part of my latest theory is the assumption that the proto-musical language was intrinsically incomplete – it only expressed abstract emtional meanings, and this created a need to provide additional more specific information about the situation that a proto-musical utterance was referring to, and words initially appeared as a means of satisfying this need.

But evolution does not always take the quickest path from A to B.

It is quite possible that, prior to the appearance of words, some other mechanism evolved to add specific detail to proto-musical utterances.

And that mechanism could have been one of melodic identity, where melodies provided strong identities, so that culturally specific meanings could be assigned to the identities of those strong melodies.

The proposed evolutionary history then expands to:

A second important part of my theory is that word-based language evolved to become superior to proto-music to such a degree that the proto-music was no longer a useful component of human communication, and indeed proto-music was actively suppressed as a component of human communication, because its structure conflicted with the structure and form that word-based language had evolved into.

(A useful analogy here is that of snakes and legless lizards – legs have evolved as a great way for getting around on land, but, some 4-legged animals have evolved techniques for moving around by wiggling their long slender bodies, and in some cases this alternative form of movement has evolved to the point where legs are worse than useless, ie they just get in the way, so it is better not to have legs at all. In this analogy, proto-musical language is the legs, and word-based language is the slithering.)

Adding the option of melodic identities, where specific meanings could be assigned to those identities, did increase the power of proto-music as a language, because it increased the number of meanings that could be expressed by the language.

But, even though melodic identity increased the expressiveness of proto-musical language, it did not change the basic limitations of proto-musical language, ie:

These limitations were what enabled the following steps of evolution, ie that words would appear as a mechanism for adding extra detail to meanings expressed by proto-music, and that eventually, because it was not subject to these limitations, word-based language would evolve to become much more powerful and expressive than the proto-musical language could ever be.

An Example

In my last article I gave an example of how words could be used to supplement the abstract emotional meaning communicated by the proto-musical language, ie:

The communication as it would be in modern word-based language:

I've just come now from the river and there's the carcass of an antelope which has not been dead for very long and it's being actively scavenged by hyenas. We should all pick up some rocks and go now together to scare the hyenas away and take the meat for ourselves!

The communication in proto-musical language expressing the following abstract meaning:

There's something exciting, if a little scary, but a big opportunity for us. We should all act strongly right now!

This list of words that, individually, could be used to supplement and clarify the abstract meaning:

This example could be updated to include the possibility of melodic identity. There would be a specific melody, which would express the same abstract meaning, and it would also have an identity which had been assigned a more specific meaning which was compatible with that abstract meaning.

For example, something like:

I've just come from where there is a carcass of a large animal that is being actively scavenged by scary scavengers, we should all pick up some rocks and go now together to scare those scary scavengers away and take the meat for ourselves!

This contains much more detail that the purely emotional abstract version, but, at the same time it is general enough that it would have described a common situation, and one that needed to be communicated about when one individual in the group learned about.

Some of the details are still missing from this version, ie:

These are details that would be more variable. If, for example, the group created a melody, and assigned a meaning to it that involved specifically an antelope, and hyenas, and the river, then this melody would not be useful for any situation where any of those details was different.

So even given the existence of a melody that was assigned meaning relating to a scavenging opportunity, there was still room for individual words to supplement this meaning with extra relevant details.

The Issue of Grammatical Combination

There do exist forms of music where the music lasts for quite a long time. However most modern popular music consists of self-contained items only a few minutes long (and not just modern popular music, this is also the case for most traditional folk music).

And there does not exist any general method for combining these small items of music into larger items.

(DJ-ing is a thing, but this is more about transitioning from one item to another, and not really about combining smaller items to somehow create a larger item.)

It has been claimed that music has "syntax", somehow analogous to the syntax of word-based language – although (as far as I know) the exact details of what this syntax is never actually specified.

We can suppose that musical items have some kind of syntax, and that this syntax implies the existence of an underlying tree-like structure, as is the case for the syntax word-based language.

But, there would have been one fundamental difference between syntax as it applied to proto-musical language and syntax as it applies to modern word-based language:

It is possible that the complexity of syntax inside the proto-musical melodies somehow prevented the possible construction of any type of syntax that operated outside those melodies, ie to construct larger items of meaning.

(We can observe that there is a limited type of syntax inside words, ie the rules according to which words can be constructed from consonants and vowels in any particular language. However this syntax is relatively simple compared to language syntax or to whatever "syntax" defines musical melodies.)

Ultimately, a Dead End

This extended version of the evolutionary history of music and language presented here provides a possible solution to the problem of assigning a function to the otherwise mysterious quality of "identity" that strong melodies have.

My proposed solution to the problem is that melodic identity allowed a limited useful extension to the functionality of proto-musical language, which in its original form only expressed abstract emotional meanings.

But, expression of meaning by melodic identity was ultimately a dead end – a useful improvement over the prior state, but one that went nowhere in the long run, tied as it was to the use of the multi-syllabic "melody" as the representation of the individual unit of meaning.

And in the end, proto-musical language, as a form of communication, was completedly replaced by word-based language.